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LEGO Figures Hitch a Ride with NASA's Juno Mission

The solar-powered probe will have some company when it begins to explore the Jovian system in 2016.

Now that the last space shuttle has returned to Earth, space fans eagerly await the launch this Friday of NASA's Juno mission, a solar-powered spacecraft slated to reach the gassy giant Jupiter in 2016. And Juno will be carrying some unusual cargo: three mini-figurines made by LEGO, depicting Galileo Galilei and the Roman gods Jupiter and Juno.

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It turns out that NASA scientists love LEGO just as much as the rest of us, so much so that they approached the company about possibly sending the classic plastic bricks deep into our solar system. And LEGO, to its credit, loved the idea, even forking out a good $15,000 to make the mini-figurines.

The "mini-figs" aren't made of plastic, but are milled from aluminum, to ensure they are robust enough for space, and won't interfere with the sensitive measurements of the various scientific instruments aboard the Juno spacecraft.

The choice of Galileo was obvious, since he was the first to gaze through his telescope and discover four moons orbiting Jupiter in 1610. The telescope was very recent invention at the time, and Galileo was among the first to recognize its potential use in astronomy. Unsatisfied with the performance of the available instruments, he duplicated and improved the invention, even learning how to grind his own lenses to improve the optics.

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He noted on January 7, 1610 that Jupiter appeared to have three fixed stars nearby. Intrigued, he returned to the planet the following night, expecting the then-retrograde body to have moved from east to west, leaving the three little stars behind. Instead, Jupiter seemed to have moved to the east.

Puzzled by the planet's behavior, Galileo returned to the formation repeatedly, observing several key details.

First, the little stars never left Jupiter, but appeared to be carried along with the planet. Second, as they were carried along, they changed their position with respect to each other and to Jupiter. Finally, he discovered a fourth little star. These "stars" were in fact moons orbiting the planet: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto This was the first empirical support for Copernicus' theory that the sun, and not the Earth, was at the center of the solar system. Galileo published this groundbreaking observation in his book Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger), which appeared in Venice in March 1610, guaranteeing his fame and ensuring his place in scientific history

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LEGO Galileo naturally has his trusty telescope by his side as he journeys into space. As for the other two figurines, Jupiter shares a name with the giant planet, while the spacecraft is named after Juno. But there's more to the underlying symbolism than that. Here's NASA's explanation:

In Greek and Roman mythology, Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief. From Mount Olympus, Juno was able to peer through the clouds and reveal Jupiter's true nature. Juno holds a magnifying glass to signify her search for the truth, while her husband holds a lightning bolt

The Juno spacecraft will also carry a plaque in Galileo's honor, emblazoned with his likeness and his own handwritten notes concerning his observations of Jupiter's moons.

The launch for Juno is currently slated for Friday, August 5th, with a window that extends through August 26th.